Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

Crafting a LifeFor reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to renovate my office in September, which meant moving all my books to the bedroom and stacking them up on the floor. I thought the project would take three weeks, with everything neatly back in place before I left for Italy. But as anyone who’s remodeled anything knows, stuff inevitably happens—in my case, the discovery that beneath the old carpet lay an unlevel floor with a few rotting floorboards.

Needing to put a whole new floor down meant that I didn’t get my books back on the shelves until last week. But while I had definitely grown tired of navigating the stacks of books in the bedroom, the timing turned out to be lucky, for over the break I had the time not just to put the books back on the shelves, but to pause, reconnect and re-acquaint myself with some I hadn’t read for a while, including Don Murray‘s Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.

Along with his fellow New Hampshire-ite Donald Graves, Don Murray was one of the founding fathers of the writing workshop approach, which invited students to follow the same process that actual writers used—pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing their way to a published piece. I’d bought Crafting a Life when it first came out, when most of the work I was doing in schools centered around writing, and I was curious to see what I’d think of it now, having focused so much recently on reading. I was even more curious when I opened it up and discovered that I’d read the book with a yellow highlighter in hand. Would what had struck me as important back then still seem important to me now? Would I see more than I saw before? Would I discover new insights?

Highlighter and word ideaI doubt I would be writing this if the answer was no. As it was, as I read the lines I’d highlighted, I found myself thinking that I’d stumbled on a whole new way of articulating the reading-writing connection, for on page after page I found parallels between the work of a writer, as Murray describes it, and the work of a reader. Of course, some of these parallels weren’t exactly new. Murray talks, for instance, about the need to form communities where “we share who we are, what we feel, what we think,” which many teachers try to do, too, for both he writers and the readers in their rooms. And he talks about “cultivating a writing habit,” which seems similar to how we help students plan a reading life by setting aside time, creating goals and thinking about what they’ll read next.

But what struck me the most were the parallels I saw in his descriptions of a writer’s purpose and attitude. Here, for instance, is a passage where Murray explains why he writes that could just as easily explain why we read:

“The reason I write is simple: to surprise myself. I want to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew, to see a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way, to contradict my most certain beliefs, to burst through expectation and intent to insight and clarity, to hurt and laugh and understand and be confused in a way that I have not experienced before.” (p. 47)

Writing to surprise yourself, according to Murray, requires a particular attitude or stance, which he says begins with paying attention, just as reading to surprise yourself does. It also requires openness and a flexible mind, as he describes below:

“It is dangerous for the writer to know exactly where he or she is going . . . . The writer has to become receptive, open to gesture, to slight adjustments in a tone of voice, to what is different from yesterday, to what will be different tomorrow, to fleeting thought and changes in feelings as subtle as an off-shore breeze that hints of rain.” (p. 29)

Surprise Box Shipped Cardboard PackageIt seems unadvisable to me, as well, for a reader to know where he or she’s going (at least the first time through a text); for if we did know, there wouldn’t really be any need to keep turning the pages. Not knowing is what keeps us engaged; it’s what propels us forward. And it’s what helps us keep our minds open and receptive to whatever surprises the text holds. If you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.

Unfortunately, however, many of the strategies we teach children to use, such as predicting and picture walks—and even connecting and accessing schema—work against this open mindset by encouraging students to form ideas before they even start reading. And as Murray says in yet another line that has implications for readers: “Beginning writers make the mistake of looking for ideas before beginning to write.” Far better, I think, would be to teach students to ask the very same questions that Murray asks himself as he writes:

“What are the most specific details I can spot? What do they reveal? Which specifics connect? What does their pattern reveal? What specifics repel others? What does that lack of pattern reveal? (p. 47)

Murray poses these questions as he drafts and revises, with each successive draft becoming what he calls “an adventure into meaning.” As readers of What Readers Really Do know, I believe that reading is as much an adventure into meaning as writing is, and it’s also a process of drafting and revising, with this important difference. “During revision,” Murray says, “I re-see the subject, developing clues into understanding, hints into insights, reordering to produce clearer patterns.” As readers, however, we can’t revise the clues or patterns the writer has laid down; what we have to keep revising instead is what we think those patterns and clues reveal and what insights they might be leading us to. And to do this, once again, we have to apply Murray’s writing words to readers: “You discover what [the text has] to say by letting go of preconceptions.”

“Writing should have led you to a new understanding—or, at least, a new confusion,” Murray writes, which is true for reading as well. Rereading Murray deepened my understanding of the reading-writing connection and what it means to read like a writer, and it helped me discover what I didn’t know I already knew. Reconnecting with him over the break was also a great way to start the new year.

Now I wonder what other surprises I’ll find waiting for me on my bookshelves . . .

Bookshelves

Matching Practice to Purpose: To Read or Not To Read a Book’s Back Cover

Piggyback by Robert Duncan (used with permission of the artist)

Whether I’m in a bookstore or library or even online at amazon, I always read back cover blurbs when I’m in the market for a book. And I always encourage students to do so when they’re looking for a new read as well. But when I’m the one choosing a text for, say, a read aloud or a small group, I don’t automatically do it because I usually want students to construct their own understanding of the text, not piggyback on another reader’s interpretation. And I don’t want them to ever think that there’s a single ‘right’ take on a text that others have and they don’t.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at what happened in a second grade room I was in the other day as I helped a group of teachers launch an author study of Tomie dePaola. Given the number of English Language Learners in the school, I’d decided to kick-off the unit with the almost wordless picture book Andy, which I thought everyone could access. The book is about a young child who, while searching for playmates, encounters a group of older kids who have all the earmarks of bullies (or, as the students said, were ‘bad guys’). And I began, as I usually do by introducing a text-based Know/Wonder chart as a means of keeping track of what we were learning and what we were wondering about as we drafted and revised our understanding of the story as we read.

Then we looked at the cover, not to predict (which I also don’t typically do), but to begin the process of thinking about what we knew at the point and what we wondered—and a heated discussion immediately erupted.

“There’s a boy named Andy,” one student said, to which I asked my standard follow-up question aimed to shed light on student thinking: “What made you think that?”

“Because Andy’s a boy’s name,” he said, pointing to a boy named Andy beside him on the rug.

“But he’s wearing pink,” another student said, “and that makes me think it’s a girl.”

“And the shoes and that green thing. Those look like girl stuff,” another student added on.

“Or maybe it’s back in the old days,” said another, “and that’s what boys wore back then.”

They batted ideas back and forth and then we continued reading, with the question of whether Andy was a boy or girl remaining unanswered right to the end. Then I asked the students to turn and talk about what they thought Tomie dePaola might be trying to show us or get us thinking about through Andy’s story, and I hunkered down with a few students to hear what they had to say.

One pair talked movingly about how the story made them think how wrong it was to take someone else’s things, which the ‘bad guys’ had done, while another group thought that if that ever happens, you have to stand up and take your things back the way that Andy did. But while I was listening, one of the students borrowed the book and proceeded to read the back cover.

 “I knew it,” he said. “Andy’s a boy. And the book is about learning letters.”

It had never occurred to me or the teachers that Andy couldn’t read. Nor had any of us seen the book as either a phonics lesson or a story about winning. Yet many of the students were ready to chuck all the thinking they’d done out the window and adopt the blurb writer’s take—and all of the teachers were looking at me to see what I’d do next.

So I asked everyone to turn their eyes back to me, and I told them the truth: that the person who wrote the blurb was just one reader whose thinking was no better or right than theirs, so long as their ideas came from the details Tomie dePaola had provided, which they clearly had. “In fact,” I said, “the blurb writer missed something that we noticed, that Tomie dePaola never makes it clear whether Andy’s a boy or a girl, and maybe he did that for a reason. Maybe he made it confusing because he wanted us to consider something that we couldn’t if we knew for sure. So I want you to turn and talk one last time about why Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear whether Andy was a boy or a girl.”

Many of the students seemed puzzled—by my questions as much as by dePaola’s choice. But one girl raised her hand when we came back to share and directed the class to this page, at which point Andy has reclaimed the letters the big kids took and is heading home.

“Maybe,” she said, “Tomie dePaola wants us to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. You’re important no matter what.”

“Yeah,” said her partner. “And no one should ever take your things even if you’re little or a girl.”

I asked the class if they thought that was possible—that Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear just so we’d think something like that—and many students nodded their heads. Then I ended the session by applying that idea to what had just happened with the back cover, telling them that their own thoughts were just as important as the thoughts of the blurb writer, with the meaning they made no less correct because they were smaller or younger.

Experiences like this have made me believe that if you want your students to fully engage in the process of meaning making with a text that you’ve chosen, reading the back cover is counter-productive. It’s another way of front-loading information and providing a reader with access to the text without actually grappling with it.  And for many students, the back cover becomes a crutch that encourages passive reading, while reinforcing the dangerous idea that there’s a single ‘right’ way to see and interpret a book.

I want students to be confident readers, able to stand on their own two feet and construct their own understanding. Of course, once they’ve done that, I might invite them to hear other interpretations. But they need to know that their ideas are as valid as any other readers, provided they’re constructed from the bottom-up from the building blocks of the text’s details.

The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut

Last week I heard from my friend and fellow teacher Debora St. Claire. She’d tried using the What I Know/What I Wonder strategy I shared in a recent post with her 8th grade students as they embarked on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and she said that it worked quite well. But what was really remarkable was what her students had to say when she asked them whether it made them do anything differently as they read.

“I can get lost in a text and then I get frustrated and quit paying attention,” one student said. “Seeing my questions on the page helped me keep focus and keep reading.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in having questions and being confused,” said another.

“It forced me to reflect more about the story instead of just reading it,” said a third.

As these students attested, this simple tool helps make the process of meaning making visible, with students drafting and revising their way from confusion to understanding and reading on with more purpose and intention. But if we truly want students to make their own meaning and not ape or take on ours, we, as teachers, have to do something that’s hard: we have to keep our mouths shut.

I was reminded of this just the other day as I met with a small group of middle school students who were stuck at level S. They were able to get the gist of what they read on the literal level, but they missed many of the smaller clues that revealed feelings, attitudes, even glimmers of themes that the author didn’t spell out directly. And that impaired their ability to read more complex texts.

To support them, I selected a short passage from Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness, a level T book about a Mexican boy newly arrived in Los Angeles. Then I gathered them together to explain that we were going to do something out loud today that readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we were learning from the text along with what we’re confused or wondering about. And to help us deal with our confusion and questions, we were going to think and talk about the details the writer gives us, because readers know that writer often leave clues about what’s going on through those details, especially about how the characters feel or why they do the things they do.

We read the first page, beginning with the chapter title and the epigraph, and the students shared out what they’d learned—that the narrator was named Arturo, or Turo, and that he has a grandmother—along with what they were confused or wondering about—the epigraph and the part about the bricks. Then I asked them then to reread the passage and see if the details offered any clues that might clear up their confusion or give them a sense of what Turo or his grandmother felt or said what they did. That led them to think that the grandmother thought Turo’s name was good and strong—like the stack of bricks—and that she might have felt proud of the name. They couldn’t quite tell, though, what Turo felt about his name, so we left that as a question.

So far, so good, I thought to myself, as we read on to learn how Turo’s family had come to Los Angeles. But then we hit this passage and the trouble began:

I asked if they’d learned anything new in this paragraph, and one of the students said, “Yeah, Miss Pringle’s probably the teacher because it’s the first day of school and she says, ‘Class’. And there’s someone named Arthur Rodriquez.”

Oops. As a reader I had immediately inferred that Miss Pringle had introduced Arturo as Arthur, for reasons I had a hunch about. But while this student had caught that Miss Pringle was the teacher, he’d missed the other clues that connected Arthur to Arturo. In the past I might have prompted him more or shared my own take on the text in the guise of a think-aloud, but putting my faith in the process of reading, which I knew often included missteps, I stuck instead to the strategy and asked, “So we think that Miss Pringle’s the teacher because of what she says, but do we have any clues about Arthur Rodriquez?”

“He’s probably another kid in the class,” one of the students said as the rest nodded in agreement. “Okay,” I said then, biting my tongue, “is anything confusing?”

Lots, the students said. They pointed to the rubbery-dolphin smile and everything that followed Arthur Rodriquez. I reminded them what they’d done on the first page: they went back and took a closer look at the details, which gave them a whole bunch of new ideas about those confusing bricks. And so I asked them to do that again—to reread and look for clues—and this time one of the students, Kaliv, had a new idea.

“Miss Pringle seems nice because she’s smiling, but it says her smile is rubbery, which sort of sounds, you know, fake. So maybe she’s not so nice. And maybe,” he said, then stopped himself, “maybe she called Arturo Arthur to make things easier for herself.”

Relief passed through me, though it was short lived, for none of the other students agreed. “No way,” they said, “it’s another kid.”

And so I bit my tongue again and recapped where we were: “It seems like we’ve got two ideas at this point. Some of us think Arthur Rodriquez is one of Miss Pringle’s students, while Kaliv thinks it might really be Arturo and maybe Miss Pringle said that because Arthur was easier to say than Arturo or because she’s not really so nice.” Then I suggested we read the next paragraph to see if we could figure out any more.

 A collective ‘oh’ rose up from the group as they read the next line. When I asked why, they all said they now thought Kaliv was right. Arthur was Arturo. And they also thought he didn’t mind the new name because it might help him fit in. And so they revised their understanding of the text.

Then they read the rest of the passage to see what else they might learn. And this time they didn’t even need a reminder about the strategy to get that Miss Pringle had changed lots of names to make them sound more American and that not everyone thought that was cool. Alicia didn’t because, they said, her eyes were like two dark, hurting bruises, which they thought meant she was either angry or sad.

I ended the session by naming for them the work they’d done as readers: They’d considered the significance of small details to help them navigate through their confusion and dig into the less visible layers of the text. And I named for myself what I had done: I’d let the students find their own route to meaning by trusting the process and keeping my mouth shut when they took a wrong turn. Doing that wasn’t easy, but each student left the group that day feeling more accomplished as a reader, and two of the students asked afterwards if they could read the whole book.

Not stepping in was a small price to pay for such an enormous payback.